A recent survey found that the average British child is more likely to visit a beach abroad before it sees one in its native land. Is this a national tragedy? Or really quite logical? Oliver Smith makes the patriotic argument for Blighty’s beaches. Sally Peck defends the honour of… the rest of the world.
Why Britain's beaches are the finest on Earth
British or European beaches? There’s no contest.
Yes, UK shores can, even in August, be lashed by wind and rain - and temperatures outside the summer months are more conducive to balaclavas than bikinis - but when the weather does play ball, there’s nowhere better.
My love for the British coast doesn’t stem from the sheer beauty of its beaches (nevertheless, from Luskentyre in the Outer Hebrides to Porthcurno in Cornwall, we have golden sands to rival Greece, Sardinia, or even the Caribbean, for good looks). It’s all down to the beachgoing ritual we’ve perfected over the centuries. Going to the seaside in Britain is a unique experience – there’s nothing quite like it on foreign soil.
Windbreaks are a must. With accompanying mallet, these are family heirlooms, handed down with reverence from father to son. They are raised to mark your territory, keep out nosy neighbours, and prevent sand from finding its way into your potato salad.
Highly competitive sporting contests are encouraged, with ensuing family rows an unfortunate but necessary by-product. Beach cricket is best, rounders is permitted, but not that aimless paddle-and-ball nonsense that is the preserve of European beaches.
Sun loungers are strictly forbidden. The coastlines of France and Italy are blighted by endless rows of them, available to rent for a small fortune, while Joe Pinchpenny must make do with a litter-strewn strip of sand next to the bins. In Blighty there’s democracy - and the same dog-eared and garish beach towel you’ve been using for a decade.
Sustenance comes in the form of ice cream (Mr Whippy), pre-packed sandwiches, pasties, fudge, and fish and chips (swimming in vinegar), all washed down with tea from a Thermos (before lunch) and warm beer (during and after). Paninis, salads and fruity cocktails are the ghastly preserve of our Continental counterparts.
Other beach activities may include building sandcastles, digging a big hole, getting lost in the dunes, or burying Dad. Away from the sand, there’s rockpooling to be done with cheap nets, coloured pebbles and grazed knees. And crabbing. Does any nation on Earth practice this sport (yes, it is a sport) with such gusto? Armed with a hook and line, a pack of streaky bacon and a bucket, hours can be whiled away.
Surfing (well, bodyboarding) should be on the agenda. Yes, it can be done in parts of Europe, but it just isn’t the same without the need to hire an ill-fitting wetsuit because the water is Baltic.
We have piers. I've spent half a dozen summers at Southwold, Suffolk, which can boast the brilliantly bonkers End of the Pier Show, where you can cross a motorway on a zimmerframe, walk a virtual dog, and visit a papier-mâché chiropodist. The French just wouldn’t get it.
There are donkey rides, rickety beach huts, seaside penny arcades, rock – and terrifyingly large gulls.
I adore the seaside, and this is the version I adore. It would be a travesty if children today grew up knowing nothing of the above.
I’ve visited many European beaches too. They are populated by leathery, preening, pouting couples. Everyone smokes and then chucks their butts in the sand. There are nudists. It’s crowded. It’s too hot. Some beaches are closed to the public. There are sharks and jellyfish out to get you. Tanning is pretty much the only activity on offer. Hawkers come by every five minutes, pestering you to buy sunglasses (can’t you see I’m wearing a pair?) – or to sign up for a bleeding massage (a massage in this heat – are you mad?). If this had been my first taste of the seaside, I’m not sure I’d ever have gone back.
What utter twaddle – here's why foreign beaches are better
I have heard Bournemouth described as a beautiful beach.
People cover Brighton like a thick layer of jam in the height (note: not heat) of the summer. With plenty of windbreaks.
Natives approach British beaches with a sort of Blitz spirit which, while energetic, doesn’t scream “holiday”. They wax nostalgic about “crabbing” (see above), which involves feeding bacon to shellfish, an unforgivable intrusion into the natural circle of life. Britons talk cheerfully about donkey rides by the beach, as if people in the rest of the world didn’t gallop on horses along longer, more under-developed and altogether prettier stretches of sand.
Building sandcastles is fun. So is rockpooling. But these are hardly British inventions. But here’s something that is: those bizarre beach huts that go for as much as £280,000 for 160 square feet, which is just enough space to boil a cup of tea. Come on. Tea shouldn’t even be a seaside drink.
One thing you learn when you move to Britain as a foreigner is that it isn’t just time (GMT) that starts the UK; everything radiates from a central hub of good-and-properness, the magnetic pull of which is located in an undisclosed part of the Home Counties.
British people (and by this I mostly mean the English) are fond of observing, with a crinkle of the eye and upturn of the mouth while gesturing grandly around them: “This is a beautiful part of the world!” And they invariably are referring to some part of England.
I am fond of the Sussex Downs. But do you know what else is pretty? The softly rolling land of Lewa Downs, in Kenya; sheep or elephants, take your pick.
I can appreciate the monochromatic neatness of a Cotswolds village. But there’s a just-as-pleasing architectural orderliness to one of Shanghai’s Qing dynasty river villages.
Nowhere is this destination arrogance more evident than in the discussion of beaches. How bizarre to insist upon the superiority of a coastline, the most celebrated stretches of which will see rainfall about every other day in August.
Once my lovely Sussex-born husband gamely brought two New Yorkers and a Californian to “the most beautiful beach”. It was - you guessed it - in a “beautiful part of the world,” otherwise known as Seaford, in Dorset. I’ll concede that the crab served at the pretty Angel Inn pub overlooking the beach, was tasty. And the beer was fine.
But I never got to swim for two reasons. First, it was a particularly cold day in July. Second, the pebbles on the beach hurt my feet so much that I could not make it to the water’s edge. Having grown up swimming for five months of the year in the frigid Atlantic Ocean, I am not hearty enough for British beaches.
Britons also prefer foreign beaches
In a survey of 2,000 parents commissioned by Sunshine.co.uk, the beach holiday operator, just over half (55 per cent) of parents said their child’s first beach experience was abroad. The Canaries, Portugal and the Balearics topped their choices.
When asked why they’d chosen foreign beaches over British, a third said they felt UK beaches were “less picturesque” and nearly one in five pointed out that a holiday abroad was a cheaper option. So that’s less money for nicer beaches.
I’d take the clapboard-house-lined sandy coast of Rhode Island, with Del’s Ice and clam cakes, over windswept Norfolk.
With my young children clamouring to swim, I’d skip the drama of Cornwall in favour of a shorter commute to the Languedoc, between Perpignan and Beziers, where I’d enjoy a refreshing local Picpoul with moules frites before paddling around the pleasantly placid Med.
I’d have a hike, tapas, and (nearly) guaranteed sun on the north-western coast of Mallorca before I’d book a chancier week in Wales.
During the dark months in Britain (November through March), I, like so many residents of this splendid but moody-weathered isle, would head to Thailand; the Maldives; the Caribbean; Sri Lanka;South Africa; California; pretty much anywhere but here.
And if such ambitions proved grander than my bank account, I’d save till summer, and plan a trip to the Algarve or Croatia or Greece – where, incidentally, it is still possible to find an entire stretch of beach for your very own. Any of these could be cheaper than hiring an English cottage (without a view) in peak summer months.
Britain has a remarkably beautiful collection of castles of great historic interest; this is objective fact. But beaches? Please. You can keep your soggy fish and chips and your stones... sorry, “pebbles”. I’ll take my sea with sand and sun.